Two separate lives, one shared passion

In a mall packed with weekend shoppers, a harp glissando, its magic notes weaving through the crowd like silver ribbons, causes heads to turn and quiet to descend. A violinist soon joins in, and together the duet work their way through a seamless stream of tunes and baroque melodies.

The ages of the two musicians add up to almost 150, and more than 70 years of playing for the Niagara Symphony Orchestra. But their smiling faces and flexible fingers are as young as the wide-eyed children spellbound by the performance — and they have no intention of putting away their instruments just because the calendar has turned over a fair number of times. In fact, they’re finding new musical outlets, especially satisfying because their own musical careers got off to a late start.

Doris Scharing arrived in Canada from her native Stuttgart in 1953, with her husband and two children, but no harp. She had begun piano studies in Germany, but once she discovered the harp she knew it would be her life’s instrument. But her music was destined to wait while she brought up her children and her husband found work in their new country.

Born in Toronto to Polish emigré parents, Jack Silverstein had his first violin lesson at the age of six. He remembers it cost 25 cents for half an hour. His elder brother had wanted lessons and young Jack was sent along to keep him company. After a year his brother became bored but the teacher told the Silversteins that Jack had definite talent.

The lessons continued for eight more years and Silverstein recalls he often cried as he strove for perfection. Taken to his first concert at Massey Hall at 14, he says “A light came on and it’s been on ever since.”

Just as he was deciding whether to pursue music at university or a conservatory, war broke out and he spent four years overseas. He returned with a different outlook and transcribed his embryonic interest in medicine into pharmacy. His passion for playing was put on hold while he graduated, married his wife Surkie, embarked on a career and celebrated the birth of the first of three sons.

About the same time, Doris Scharing bought a second-hand, stringless harp. But in the 50s, strings cost a week’s wages, so the instrument was left to gather dust.

“Eventually — when my children were in high school — my teacher from Germany sent me a set of strings and told me “It was time to start again.” Scharing strung the old harp, only to watch it fall apart as she tried in vain to tune it.

Luckily, by this time she was able to afford a new instrument and some lessons. She took her talents first to the Buffalo Philharmonic, until one day she walked into a rehearsal of the Niagara Symphony in St. Catharines. Without an audition, she was asked to join. “They were just so happy to see a harpist — any harpist,” she laughs.

Sitting among the first violins was former concert master Jack Silverstein. When he arrived in St. Catharines in 1956 to open his own pharmacy, almost the first question Silverstein asked was: “Is there an orchestra here?” There was. A small community orchestra formed in 1948 was slowly making strides towards professional status.

Attending his first rehearsal, Silverstein was waved to the last desk in the second violins. “That was my audition,” he chuckles. “The next rehearsal I played in the first violins.”

Working very full days as a pharmacist, Silverstein still managed more than 20 concerts a season. He became known as “the fiddling pharmacist” or “the late Mr. Silverstein”, because, rushing from the pharmacy, he often arrived after rehearsals had begun. It’s no surprise that in 1991 his fellow musicians honoured him with a certificate of appreciation for 35 years of loyalty and dedication.

Former symphony conductor Michael Reason describes Silverstein and Scharing as “treasured by the other players for their dedication and positive outlook,” adding they played an important role in the success the NSO has achieved as a first-class professional orchestra. “Doris is someone you instinctively warm to, and Jack always has an amusing story about music.”

Although officially retired as a pharmacist — he still fills in at stores in the Niagara area — it’s doubtful Silverstein will retire from his musical career. “So long as I can continue to play I get tremendous satisfaction. I love teaming up with younger musicians and feel 35 years young again every time the overture begins.”

Silverstein also recently joined the Peninsula Orchestra, a local amateur group, and he and a pianist friend entertain the residents of a retirement home regularly. He also plays with the Coronation Rhythm Band, a group of seniors to whom he’s known as “Jack junior.” Back in her sunlit home in Niagara’s quiet countryside, Doris Scharing tilts her favorite black harp until it rests comfortably against her shoulder and plays some of her much-loved French Impressionist music. Although she retired from the NSO in 1996, Scharing’s musical calendar seems busier than ever. She teaches privately, and was until recently involved in the symphony’s summer schools; plays with a flautist and violinist at weddings and receptions; and during December plays in the Singing Christmas Tree orchestra in Buffalo. She proudly announces that one of her former students is now the NSO’s harpist, and another plays with the acclaimed Canadian National Youth Orchestra.

Most important is her discovery of the therapeutic value of music. “This is something I really believe in,” she says with conviction. “Extensive studies in the U.S. have shown the harp, with its strong vibrations, has exceptional healing powers. Both physically and emotionally disabled people have been helped to lead a normal, active life.”

Scharing, who has attended many workshops in Oklahoma and New York State, works privately with two MS students. One is a 79-year-old former teacher “who music has kept out of a wheelchair.” Another, a nurse in her mid-40s, can feel the vibrations in her foot, but still finds playing difficult. “So long as she is willing, I am,” Scharing says.

She also does volunteer work in the rehab department of a local chronic care hospital and is constantly exploring new ways of bringing the positive healing of music to people who most need it, encouraging them to try to play the harp, to feel the “good vibrations”, not just to listen passively.

In fact, for both Scharing and Silverstein, music is not only a life — it’s life-giving.